Overlord'S Blog: Despite the Elements
History is filled with stunning stories of survival. Today we shall have a look at one of them. A man fate just couldn't kill.
Aged just 17 Nicholas Stephen Alkemade joined the RAF at the height of the Battle of Britain. But he wasn't destined to fly Spitfires against the Germans. His first posting was to the RAF Air-Sea Rescue service. The launches used by the RAF had a pair of aircraft style machine gun turrets for defence. Its almost certain that Alkemade would have been trained in their use. He later transferred to Bomber Command, and joined 115 Squadron as a gunner. By this time his rank was Flight Sergeant.
During the Battle of Berlin Bomber Command launched massive attacks against Germany. Unlike the US bomber operations, there was no set formation, due to the impracticalities of maintaining close co-operation with other aircraft at night. Instead the bombers formed a stream that headed for their target. This did end up giving an element of mutual protection, as the German attackers never knew if another bomber might spot them and engage them.
On March the 24th 1944, Bomber Command launched its last major raid against Germany. From then on the RAF's aircraft were to concentrate on preparations for D-day. 811 aircraft were dispatched for Berlin. 115 Squadron was amongst those in the attack. This was F/s Alkemades 13th operation, in a week he was due to take leave to see his girlfriend. The Squadron had nearly completed the process of converting from Lancaster MKII's to MKIII's. However F/s Alkemade was assigned as rear gunner to the MKII Lancaster S for Sugar (serial number: DS664, ID code: A4-K).
Taking off from RAF Witchford at 1848, S for Sugar climbed to 20,000 ft, and ran into problems. Little did the bomber crews know but the weather forecast they had been given was very badly wrong. Strong winds buffeted the bomber stream spreading it out, and pushing it off course. By the time it reached Germany the stream was spread out over an area 20 miles wide and 70 miles long. S for Sugar paid the price for that mistake. Blown off course and over Frankfurt she was hit and damaged by flak. However the pilot, F/s Newman, decided to press on. Arriving over Berlin they released their bombs, some time about 2330. But again the winds played havoc. The stream was so far off course they missed their target bombing well south of the aim point. Then the Wild Boars fell upon the bombers.
Wild Boar missions were German night-fighter operations to destroy the bombers. After RAF had started deploying countermeasures to the German radar, the Luftwaffe had realised that over a bomber target there were thousands of sources of illumination. Search lights, flares, even fires of the target would light up the sky to give near daylight conditions. On the 24 of March about 100 night-fighters were flying over Berlin when the bombers arrived.
One of those was Oberleutnant Heinz Rokker, flying his JU88 night-fighter. In the previous 90 minutes Oblt Rokker had shot down his 18th and 19th Kills, in the form of a Lancaster and a Halifax. That's when he saw S for Sugar. At 2348 he launched his attack.
His first burst of gunfire hit the Lancaster in its starboard engine, immediately causing the wing to burst into flames. The same salvo had hit F/s Alkemades turret, smashing away the perspex dome and starting a fire in the turret. F/s Alkemade spotted the Ju88 as it opened fire and returned fire. The long burst of .303 ammunition hit Oblt Rokker's starboard engine causing it burst into flames. Oblt Rokker peeled away from danger by diving, flames streaming from his engine. Oblt Rokker survived the war, so he must have managed to land his damaged plane, but so far I've not been able to find the details of the rest of his journey. I do know he scored no more kills that night.
However S for Sugar was doomed. Engulfed in flames she was falling from the sky. F/S Newman screamed over the intercom "We have to jump! Come on, out, out!" Nicholas reached for his parachute, which would normally be stored behind the turret, for there was no room inside for the gunner to wear it. However a cannon shell had shredded the Parachute!
With flames from the burning hydraulics beginning to lick his face, and his clothes and oxygen mask smouldering in the heat, Nicolas had a stark choice. Burn to death in the crashing Lancaster, or leap, and die 18,000 feet down. "Better a clean and fast death than being roasted" ran through Nicholas mind and he threw himself out the smashed gunners position. Falling on his back, slightly head down he had a feeling of being suspend in the air, as though in a soft bed. As he passed through the cloud layer he passed out. Plummeting he quickly reached terminal velocity of 125mph, then finally his unconscious body hit the ground.
Nicholas first sensation was cold. He awoke and looked up at the sky, checking his watch it was 0310, and he was alive! Looking about him he could see some broken Fir tree branches, and he was lying in a thick drift of snow. The cushioning effect of the tree's and the snow had miraculously saved him from his fall of 18,000 feet. He hadn't escaped totally uninjured. He'd suffered sprained and twisted back and knee, had a deep laceration to the thigh and a concussion. Unable to move, he now faced death from exposure in the cold German forest. All British airmen had a whistle attached to the collar of their flight suit, so they can find each other if their plane has to ditch, so Nicholas started blowing on it.
About half an hour later a party of Standschutze followed the sound of the whistle and found F/s Alkemade still lying where he had fallen, smoking a cigarette. With sign language he told them what had happened, and they clearly didn't believe he was aircrew, as they asked for his parachute. But they took him into custody. As the Germans lifted him up F/s Alkemade passed out.
When he awoke he found himself in a hospital. Again he explained what had happened. It became clear the doctors thought him deranged from the blow to the head. Eventually when healed he was sent to Stalag Luft 3 POW camp. Where he was kept in solitary confinement as a spy. The Germans continued to question him, believing he had buried his parachute after landing, and insisting he was a spy. Luckily for F/s Alkemade a German Lieutenant became curious about his claims. So the German went looking for S for Sugar. When he found the bomber, he checked the parachute, which was still where F/s Alkemade had claimed, further investigation showed that F/s Alkemades harness matched, and the Germans promptly released him from solitary confinement. To help with any further doubters the senior British officer in the POW camp, paid attention to the Germans evidence and signed off on a certificate to the truth of F/s Alkemades story.
Nicholas was repatriated to the united Kingdom in may 1945. After demobbing he went to work in the chemical industry. During his career a 100Kg iron girder fell on his unprotected head, and he suffered a cut to the head, but was otherwise unharmed. He also took a electrical discharge that knocked him unconscious and he fell into a pool of chlorine. He lay there for 15 minutes until rescued, still alive. He finally died, aged 64, in 1987.